The City in Fiction and Film, week two

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Week one

This week we took on Fritz Lang’s M (1931).

We began with a quotation from Anton Kaes’s BFI classic, which describes the film as embodying:

‘the tension between the forces of modernity, with their emphasis on time, discipline, rationality, seriality, law and order and those recalcitrant counterforces – trauma, passion, illness, loss and, finally, death – that defy reason and resist integration’ (76)

Our discussion of these various concepts in relation to the film was supported by a number of clues and questions presented before the screening:

Look out for clocks, files, records, book-keeping, accounts and other evidence of bureaucracy in action.
Look out for communications networks and mass media.
Look out for shop windows and other displays of commodities.
Look out for mirror images/reflections and doublings.
What is going on with the narrative structure? To what extent is this a film about the contest between a protagonist and an antagonist? To what extent is classical narrative structure subordinated to a series of images of the city connected by sound? How are those images arranged? How do they relate to each other?
Pay attention to the ways the film uses sound (offscreen sound, sound from the following shot/scene present in the current scene, unusual sources of sound, silences).
At the end of the film, is there any conclusive evidence of Hans Beckert’s (Peter Lorre) guilt?

Clocks abound in this film (and other Lang films – see the Paternoster Machine in Metropolis for example) – from the child’s game that opens the film with clock-like movement to the pickpocket who calls the talking clock and then corrects all the stolen watches he is carrying; from the cuckoo clock in Frau Beckman’s apartment that signals the time as she waits for little Elsie to return home to the clocktower bells that drown it out. They signify the imposition of clock time on our experience of the world – imposed so the trains could run on time, to organize commerce, to discipline and control labour – and the ways in which this ordering of subjectivity also disorders us.

Building on this, the police investigation evokes the instrumentalisation, rationalisation and bureaucratisation of everyday life – files kept on people, fingerprinting, forensic procedures. The police amass information and process it in an orderly manner, an image graphically captured by the concentric circles drawn on a map to indicate the expanding radii of the investigation around a crime scene. The state panopticon’s vast archives of signifiers are bureaucratic abstractions of actual people – this is, as Foucault would argue, evidence of the growing management of populations by statistics. (Though we didn’t get on to Foucault or the panopticon or biopolitics in class!)

Likewise, the gang of criminals come up with their own systematic means of finding the killer (because he is bad for business) – surveillance conducted by the army of beggars in the street; and then, when Beckert is trapped in the factory/office building, despatching teams of men to work through it in an orderly manner.

This parallel between the police/administration and the criminals/beggars has already been indicated by the sequence which repeatedly cuts between them, in their respective smoke-filled rooms, as they plan their respective campaigns. (And boy, are those rooms smoke-filled – like the studio is on fire or something.)

We also thought about seriality – the children’s game, the serial fiction delivered to Frau Beckman as she waits for Elsie, the ordering of cigarettes and cigars and other objects in the beggars’ hideout, where food prices are listed in chalk as if share prices at a stock exchange. And of course serial killers, that modern and largely urban phenomenon, the US variety of which is typically said to start with HH Holmes in Chicago at the time of the 1893 World’s Fair (the subject of one of Edison’s early phonographs). The early twentieth century saw several notorious examples in Germany (Kürten, Grossmann, Denke, Haarmann), and they crop up in other German films of this period, such as Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924), and The Lodger (1927), made under the influence of expressionism by Hitchcock shortly after his return from Germany to England (and remade in 1932 with sound by Maurice Elvey).

The idea of the serial killer returned us to the anonymity offered by cities – and the film’s recurring idea that anyone could be the killer. An idea that flips immediately into unreason – we three times see groups of people mistake someone for the killer, unleashing irrational violence, twice by mobs. (This is why it is important, I think, that we see no real evidence that Beckert is guilty. All the police know is that they have traced the man who wrote a letter to the newspapers confessing to the crimes – as many others have done. All the criminals know is that a blind man recognised a tune that was being whistled by someone to whom he sold a balloon for a little girl on the day Elsie went missing. Beckert’s own not entirely convincing confession is clearly that of a deranged man. And yet we, too, generally assume that he is guilty, leaping to conclusions.)

Violence lurks everywhere in this film. The streets are populated with men injured in the war: limbs are missing, and the one set of fingerprints we see are those of a man with only four fingers; there are blind people and deaf people, people who fake being blind and a blind man who sometimes wishes he was deaf so as to cut out the constant noise of the city. There are also psychological traumas: the anxiety of parents (shared to an extent by the viewer who joins them in being worried about their children) and the bereavements they suffer. Lang at one point considered including a flashback to explain the origins of Beckert’s derangement in the horrors of World War One; but that would psychologise him, and like Brecht, Lang is more interested here in moving from ‘psychology to sociology, from empathy to critical distance, from organic development to montage, from suggestion to argument’.

This is why the film narrative is decentred into montages of city scenes, without real protagonist or antagonist. It is about the social circumstances which enable serial killers (and other modern urban figures) to emerge, to thrive, to become a media spectacle. This is why we are not permitted – until the final scene – to develop any real sense of Beckert as a person with whom we might sympathise in some way.

We also situated the film in relation to
— expressionist art (Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Paul Klee’s Castle and Sun, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Nollendorfplatz and Self-Portrait as Soldier, Wassilly Kandinsky’s progression from The Rider to Composition 6 to On White II, James N. Rosenberg’s Oct 29 Dies Irae)
— German expressionist film (Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr CaligariGenuineRaskolnikov, Hands of Orlac, Martin’s From Morn to Midnight, Robison’s Warning Shadows) – though we only had time for clips from Caligari and the opening of Joe May’s Asphalt, which moves from actuality footage to expressionist images of the city, cuts to a calm domestic space, and then returns to expressionist images of the city (you can see it here.) Unlike Caligari, which films expressionist spaces and performances, Asphalt in places uses the camera and editing in an expressionist manner.
Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity or New Matter-of-factness, New Sobriety or New Dispassion), a post-impressionist movement that tried to get away from subjective expression to a more political art intended to provoke collective action (examples included Otto Dix’s verist Salon, War Cripples and The Trench, and Alexander Kanoldt’s classicist Still Life II and Der rote Gürtel). We also took  quick look at some footage from the great New Objectivity film People on Sunday (see it here).

Lang, after all, called a documentary!

The conclusion that I did not have time to get to included the sneaky reference to Foucault mentioned above, and one to the Adorno and Horkheimer – their argument that in capitalist modernity economics and politics become increasingly intertwined: business interests intervene in the running of the state for their own ends; the state intervenes in the economy to maintain conditions favourable to business. This leads to centralised instrumentalist bureaucracies and administration. As instrumental reason dominates, social life becomes increasingly rationalised.

Which kind of captures a large chunk of what M is up to. As in others of Lang’s German and US films, the city is the site of modernity, and this is what modernity looks (and sounds) like.

Additional information from the module handbook
Recommended critical reading
– Gunning, Tom. The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Visions and    Modernity. London: BFI, 2000. See 163–199 on M.
– Kaes, Anton. M. London: BFI, 2000.
– Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 1, “Modernity and the City Film: Berlin.”
– Roberts, Ian. German Expressionism. London: Wallflower, 2008.
Recommended reading
The key German expressionist novel is Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). A more accessible vision of Germany in the Weimar period can be found in Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939), often bound together as The Berlin Stories or The Berlin Novels and adapted for film as I Am A Camera (Cornelius 1955) and Cabaret (Fosse 1972). Other serial killer fiction of interest includes Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square: A Tale of Darkest Earl’s Court (1941), Dorothy B Hughes’s In a Lonely Place (1947), Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952), David Grubb’s The Night of the Hunter (1953), Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991) and Susanna Moore’s In the Cut (1995). Erik Larson’s non-fiction account of HH Holmes and the Chicago World’s Fair, The Devil in the White City (2003), is also of interest.
One of the innovations of American hardboiled crime fiction was the introduction of the detective who could go anywhere in the city, crossing physical space as well as class barriers – such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, introduced in The Big Sleep (1939) – which enables a similar overview of society as that offered in M.
Recommended viewing
Other German expressionist films about the city include The Last Laugh (Murnau 1924), Metropolis (Lang 1927), The Blue Angel (von Sternberg 1930) and – made in the US – Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau 1927).
German expressionism visually influenced American film noir, including adaptations of Chandler novels, such as Murder My Sweet (Dmytryk 1944) and The Big Sleep (Hawks 1946). Its impact can also be seen in such British films as Odd Man Out (Reed 1947) and The Third Man (Reed 1949).
Point Blank (Boorman 1967), Se7en (Fincher 1995), The Underneath (Soderbergh 1995), Dark City (Proyas 1998), Fight Club (Fincher 1999) and The Deep End (McGehee and Siegel 2001) find ways to create expressionist effects in colour.
Although it has expressionist elements, at the time of its release in Germany M was considered and example of New Objectivism, like People on Sunday (Siodmak and Ulmer 1930) and GW Pabst’s films of this period – Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), Pandora’s Box (1929), Westfront 1918 (1930) and The Threepenny Opera (19321 .
The Wire (HBO 2002–08) maps the urban complexity behind crime, from street-level drug-dealing to corporate and political corruption. Spiral (Canal+ 2005–), The Killing (DR/ZDF 2007–12) and Peaky Blinders (BBC 2013 – ) do some similar things, although they are less astute about economics.

Week three

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The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara (Criterion Eclipse boxset 28)

Kurahara_box[A version of this review first appeared in Film International 62 (2013), 54–8]

Following an apprenticeship under Toho’s Kajiro Yamamoto, and a short stint at Shochiku, Koreyoshi Kurahara joined Nikkatsu in 1954, the year the studio recommenced production after the war. He served as an assistant director on Crazed Fruit (Kurutta kajitsu 1956), Kô Nakahira’s ground-breaking taiyozoku-eiga (sun tribe film), before going on to direct a couple of films per year for the studio between 1957 and 1967, enlivening potentially formulaic material in a manner every bit as distinctive as that of his better-known contemporary, Seijun Suzuki.

XXX_Film_iamwaiting_originalKurahara’s debut film, I Am Waiting (Ore wa matteru ze 1957) – included in the earlier Criterion Eclipse collection, Nikatsu Noir – seems less like American film noir than French poetic realism. A moody, melancholic tale centred on a dockside café, it tells of the apparently doomed love between the café’s owner (an ex-boxer, stripped of his license after killing a man in a brawl) and a woman (a former opera singer, reduced to warbling in a mobster’s nightclub) he dissuades from committing suicide. Their respective backstories, however, contain the cruellest of coincidences and traps. This sense of inescapable fate is key to the earliest of the films included in this boxset, Intimidation (Aru kyouhaku 1960). Like La Bête humaine (1938), it begins with a train approaching a town, but where Jean Renoir’s film concentrates on the rails which run relentlessly ahead, crossing and merging but always driving forward, remorselessly conveying the hapless driver to his fate, Intimidation’s opening shots are misty – oneiric – with steam and condensation. Kurahara’s train races through the tunnels cut into snow-covered mountains, taking us beneath the cold heights that rise above but are inseparable from the darkness below.

Kurahara_Filmw_Intimidation_originalIntimidation focuses on the relationship between Takita, the assistant manager of a regional bank, and his childhood friend, Nakaike. Many years earlier, Takita had been involved with Nakaike’s sister, Yuki, but abandoned her to steal Kumiko, the daughter of the bank president, away from Nakaike and thus accumulate nepotistic advantages. While Nakaike is still a lowly clerk, and Yuki an embittered geisha, Takita is being promoted to the Tokyo head office, where he is to be groomed as his father-in-law’s successor. The train, though, has brought a stranger to town who threatens blackmail: unless Takita rob his own bank, Kumaki will reveal his financial irregularities and sexual infidelities. Takita hopes to take advantage of the fact that Nakaike is on guard duty on the night of the robbery. But – as an eerie dream sequence, deploying a subjective camera far more effectively than either Dark Passage (Daves 1947) or Lady in the Lake (Montgomery 1947), warns us – nothing is quite what it seems.

The economy of the film’s set-up enables Kurahara to focus upon set-pieces – such as an almost-silent heist, every bit as remarkable as the one in Rififi (Dassin 1955) – and upon unpacking, through a series of reversals, multiple layers of manipulation, revenge, humiliation and despite. Lacking the claustrophobia of film noir’s Academy ratio, Kurahara uses his widescreen format (and a frequently mobile camera) to emphasise movement through physical space, which he contrasts to the relative absence of social mobility. Depth of field, along with startling cuts along the 180° line, stress the gulf between classes. Kurahara also often favours high angle shots that strengthen the diagonal arrangement of rival characters, craning down as the balance of power alters to shift their apparent relative height. Other high angle shots seem to pin characters to the floor, as if on a dissection board. Juxtapositions within and between shots jab the viewer in the eye like a boxer, compressing information with all the swagger of Sam Fuller.

warped ones 1Such bravura flourishes become the core of Kurahara’s style by The Warped Ones (Kyonetsu no kisetsu 1960). Reworking the taiyozoku-eiga by turning from Crazed Fruit’s privileged kids to the disenfranchised youths of the unhomely, post-war tenements, it follows the story of petty criminal Akira. Thanks to journalist Kashiwagi, he is caught pick-pocketing a tourist and sentenced to Tokyo Juvenile Reformatory, where, amidst brutality and violence, he meets another young thug, Masura. After this dazzling title sequence, the film proper begins with their release. Teaming up with the prostitute Yuki, they begin a summer of casual crime. Revenge, rape, street-fighting, murder and abortions follow, interspersed with hi-jinks, impulsive thievery, mucking around and mockery of bourgeois pastimes. Driven by Toshiro Mayuzumi’s jazz score, Yoshio Mamiya’s lively hand-held cinematography and Akira Suzuki’s snappy editing, The Warped Ones is, at times, even more exhausting than it is fascinating – as if Neveldine+Taylor had directed a mash-up of Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960) and Bande à part (1964) co-written by Jim Thompson and a young Harlan Ellison. Kurahara’s camera is constantly distracted, preferring to move through space rather than cut to reaction shots. Its gaze often drifts upwards to swirl across the collage of jazz greats decorating the ceiling of Akira’s favourite bar or, more tellingly, to flood the screen with the brilliant white blaze of the summer sun. This is not the Impressionist dappling of light found in Kurosawa’s Rashômon (1950), but light as a monumental, sublime energy: on the one hand, it suggests the transcendence of earthly conditions for which Akira yearns but lacks the patience to attain; and on the other, an oppressive weight, pinning him down, exposing his purposelessness. As with Intimidation, life presses hot and hard, and Kurahara cannot resist showing us every bead of sweat.

Although not exactly a sequel, Black Sun (Kuroi taiyo 1964) returns to this milieu. In The Warped Ones, Akira threatens Kashiwagi’s pregnant girlfriend Fumiko with a broken bottle. Gill, a black American who hangs out in the same bar, intervenes, dragging Akira away and driving him to the beach. In a totally unexpected sequence – which echoes earlier shots of Masura and Yuki cavorting while Akira rapes and impregnates Fumiko – Gill and Akira run hand in hand across the sand before plunging into the sea harmlessly to exhaust Akira’s rage. In Black Sun, Tamio Kurahara_Filmw_BlackSun_originalKawachi plays Mei, identical to his earlier Akira in almost every respect, Yuko Chishiro plays another prostitute called Yuki, and Chico Roland plays Gill, a wounded GI on the run after killing two other servicemen. The film starts with the desolate wasteland before an ominously alien-looking nuclear power station, where tiny figures scavenge for scrap. The jazz-obsessed Mei, who lives in a bombed-out church with his dog Thelonius Monk, thinks nothing of robbing these weary middle-aged mudlarks so that he can buy the new Max Roach Quartet album. When he finds Gill hiding in his squat, Mei assumes they will automatically be friends, since he loves black American music, and thus all black Americans. The culture-clash melodrama that follows (perhaps the oddest of rashamen films) plays like some demented, infernal rendition of The Defiant Ones (Kramer 1958) – part John Cassavetes, part Shinya Tsukamoto. Roland plays Gill as a feverish, distracted brute, wielding a ridiculously large machine gun, sweating profusely, mumbling and yelping his lines. Kurahara draws awkward parallels between post-Occupation Japan and the American civil rights struggle – and at one point even has Mei don blackface and whitewash Gill’s face so that they can escape by posing as street entertainers.

But all this bizzarerie ends magnificently. The increasingly incoherent Gill is obsessed with reaching the sea, which he associates with his mother and with redemption. Mei manages to get him first to a filthy, oil-slicked estuary, and then to a rooftop overlooking a heavily industrialised port. Somehow Gill gets caught in the ropes tethering an advertising balloon. He pleads with Mei to release it. And as the pursuing MPs close in, the delirious Gill rises up towards the sun, an absurd, black, blasphemous, jazz Christ.

Made between The Warped Ones and Black Sun, I Hate But Love (Nikui an-chikusho 1962) moderates and modulates Kurahara’s stylistic excesses, as one would expect of a colour vehicle for Nikkatsu’s – arguably Japan’s – biggest stars of that year, Yujiro Ishihara and Ruriko Asaoka. (Ishihara, an overnight success thanks to his performance in Crazed Fruit, played I Am Waiting’s ex-boxer and had already in 1962 co-starred with Asaoka in Kurahara’s hit Ginza Love Story (Ginza no koi no monogatari)). Kurahara’s camera remains restless, but not so unanchored that it cannot cope with sets and occasional back-projection. This time the contrived set up comes straight from a 1930s screwball or 1950s sex comedy, but the movie that ensues is more of a melodrama. Sort of.

i hate but love 1In just two years, Daisaku Kita has been transformed from a penniless poet into a radio and television star, thanks to a deal he struck with Noriko Sakakta: she would manage him, initially for free, but they would never consummate their romantic entanglement with so much as a kiss. Fed up with an unfulfilling life of constant bustling activity, and frustrated by his relationship with Noriko, Daisaku encounters Yoshiko Igawa. She has devoted her life to buying a jeep with which to aid Toshio Kosaka, a doctor in a remote village, in his work. Yoshiko insists that she and Toshio, who have conducted their entire relationship through letters, possess a ‘pure love’. Daisaku agrees on air to deliver the jeep to Toshio, so that he can experience some trace of this love – a love so different to that which he shares with Noriko. And Noriko pursues him across Japan, trying to bring him back in order to save his career from his multiple breaches of contract – at least, that is what she tells herself.

Kurahara’s road movie never becomes as achingly romantic as Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965) or Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-bi (1997), and his melodrama eschews the oedipal intensity of Nicholas Ray. His comedy has neither the bite of Preston Sturges (although one sequence resembles Sullivan’s Travels (1941) more than slightly), nor the brashness of Yasuzo Masumura’s Giants and Toys (Kyojin to gangu 1958), although Masumura – and Frank Tashlin – would undoubtedly have enjoyed the sequence in which Daisaku and Noriko struggle through a cloacal tunnel onto the fecal mud of mountain roads. But somehow Kurahara pulls it off – his stars, especially Asaoka, are a delight – and he even manages to conclude with a shot looking up at the sun, here betokening a pure love of hope and renewal.

The light that saturates Asaoka’s Etsuko – and the entire frame – in Thirst For Love (Ai no kawaki 1967) signifies something rather different: sexual ecstasy, erotic distraction, amoral desire. Etsuko, widowed soon after her marriage, submits to the attentions of her father-in-law, fends off those of her brother-in-law, and yearns for the family’s young groundskeeper, Saburo. Despite desiring Etsuko, Saburo does not know what to make of her, and her pursuit of him is confused, impulsive, uncertain. The class gulf between them is too great for her imagination to bridge, and she becomes increasingly cruel to him, trying to make him suffer just as she (feels she) suffers. Based on a Yukio Mishima novel, and offering the perfect set-up for a film by Luis Buñuel or Douglas Sirk, Thirst for Love instead more closely resembles Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman (Nippon konchuki 1963) and Intentions of Murder (Akai satsui 1964) in its study of a feminisuto (but hardly feminist) woman.

While occasional shots and scenes possess the still formality of Yasujirô Ozu, these are odd moments of calm in another stylistically mercurial movie, incorporating voice-over narration, interior monologues, negative footage, slow motion, extreme close-ups, stills, sound distortions, intertitles, flashes of violent fantasised action, brief flashes of colour film (bright red, of course), a conversation that suddenly jumps into long-shot and switches from audible dialogue to subtitles, and, most remarkable of all, a two-and-half minute shot in which the camera cranes around an ornate light-fitting, showing the eight people seated at the family dinner table, before moving off to one side to look down at them as they converse, and then craning around and down behind Saburo as he rises to leave, before zooming in on Etsuko, sitting at the other end of the table, as she watches him depart.

Thirst for Love was Kurahara’s last film under contract to Nikkatsu. Studio bosses purportedly found it too arty and delayed its release, prompting Kurahara to quit the studio (in the same year, Nikkatsu fired Suzuki for turning in the brilliant absurdist hitman movie, Branded to Kill (Koroshi no rakuin 1967), rather than the sane, polished and pedestrian Joe Shishido vehicle they had expected). Kurahara continued to make movies, albeit at a reduced rate, eventually transforming himself into the reliable and unchallenging director of such films as Antarctica (Nankyoku monogatari 1983), the biggest Japanese box-office hit prior to Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime 1997). But in his decade as a Nikkatsu contract director with an output as eclectic as Suzuki’s, he developed a personal style and vision every bit as striking as those of such contemporaries in the Japanese New Wave as Imamura, Masumura, Nagisa Oshima and Hiroshi Teshigahara. And by making this selection of his films available, Criterion have once more done us invaluable service.

 

Film neige: noir + snow

hqdefaultIn 1952, midway between two great noir performances as a psychotic racist (Crossfire, 1947; Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959), Robert Ryan played detective Jim Wilson in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground. Alongside Ryan and Ray, the film has pretty much everything you could want from a tough-cop-on-the-edge noir: a script by AI Bezzerides, a score by Bernard Herrmann, and roles for Ida Lupino both in front of and (uncredited) behind the camera.

Wilson is sick of the scum he encounters – and beats on, with weary resignation and twisted joy – every day. Facing possible prosecution over a too-vigorous interrogation, he is sent out of the city to help some small-town cops track the killer of a young girl through the mountains. It is winter. And in the snow, the film begins to change – morphing, like all of Ray’s film noirs, into something more closely resembling the melodramas for which he is best remembered. Wilson stumbles upon the isolated house of a beautiful blind woman. Her kid brother, Danny, is the deranged killer; she is blind because she stayed to look after him rather than going away to have an operation. And her faith in Wilson’s goodness – something he just does not deserve – redeems him.

But this generic transformation is not merely Ray’s doing. It has something to do with the snow.

The first Max Payne video game (2001) is set during the worst blizzard to hit New York in a century, and in Sin City (2005), when Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is released from prison, having finally confessed to crimes he did not commit in order to go out and commit some for real (not without good reason), snow falls, blanketing the ground. There is something very right about these images, appearing in cross-media franchises that function as compendia of American crime fiction tropes.

But snow is rare in film noir.

There is sun, wind and rain – Key Largo (1948) has all three – but very little snow.

Citizen Kane (1941), visually the most significant American precursor of noir, has snow, and the climax of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) does get very cold, since its couple on the run are the odds-against-tomorrow-harry-belafonte-1959only fugitives ever to head for the Canadian rather than the Mexican border. And if you’ve not seen Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow recently you can be forgiven for thinking it has snow: the sound effects are so good, the icy wind cuts right through you. But in classical Hollywood, film neige, like the snow that somehow brings Britain grinding to a halt every couple of years, is pretty thin on the ground.

Why is this? Well, actually snow is relatively rare in studio-era Hollywood. It does appear in big-budget films (Way Down East, 1920), but it is difficult and expensive to shoot in cold, wet conditions and film noir rarely had a dime to spare. And when you fake it, it looks fake. However, that need not be a problem for films that are comical (How to Marry a Millionaire, 1953), fantastical (The Curse of the Cat People, 1944), musical (Swing Time, 1936) or otherwise given to artifice (All That Heaven Allows, 1955). Film noir, though, is rarely any of these things.

Snow has great noirish potential. It is treacherous, unpredictable. It can betray you, isolate you, trap you, kill you. Pursuers can track you through the snow, and it can force you into dangerous proximity to them. Banks and drifts obscure contours, conceal familiar markers. Flurries become blizzards. Visibility reduces. Cold becomes colder. Circulation slows. You begin to lose feeling. Death is never far away. It creeps inwards.

All of which makes sense in the wilderness, and even, sort of, in the older, northern and eastern cities in which, typically, gangster films – and Max Payne and Sin City – are set.

But film noir is a Californian invention. Whether it is the sultry Argentine night in which Rita Hayworth threatens to strip (Gilda, 1946), the dazzling Mexican afternoon out of which Jane Greer emerges to lead Robert Mitchum astray (Out of the Past, 1947), the hot Mexican night in which Mitchum, shirtless and glistening, is flogged with a belt, the buckle opening welts in his back, and thrown into a steam-filled engine room (His Kind of Woman, 1951), or the unseen suburban deck on which Barbara Stanwyck is sunbathing when Fred MacMurray comes hawking insurance (Double Indemnity, 1944), film noir thrives on heat.

In the heat, passions rise. Tempers fray. Everyone becomes just a little bit flushed. A little bit moist.

Snow simply lacks this erotic resonance.

So Robert Ryan, stuck overnight with Ida Lupino (and, admittedly, Ward Bond), has little choice but to sleep on the floor and wake up in a neighbouring genre; and film noir could do little with snow until it was reworked overseas and in post-classical Hollywood.

François Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (1960) casts Charles Aznavour as bar-room piano player Charlie Kohler. Once a concert pianist, he goes to pieces when he finds out that his waitress wife slept with an impresario to get him his big break. When she tells him this, he leaves her and she commits suicide. He abandons celebrity for anonymity, and rediscovers love with another supportive waitress, Léna. They flee Paris to his family farm, where his criminal brothers are holed up, having double-crossed their gang. Truffaut sets the final few minutes of the film in a desolate, rural snowscape, wryly inverting film noir’s black:white ratio. TruffautTirezSurLePianisteLenaThe gunfight between the gang and Charlie’s brothers plays on the spatial disorientations – and slippery footing – of deep, featureless snow. Léna, of course, is caught in the crossfire, robbing Charlie of his renewed future.

Charlie returns to the bar. A new waitress is introduced. Will she too become involved with him, offer him redemption? Will it also end badly for her? The snow reminds us that for Truffaut (or perhaps merely Charlie), women are like snowflakes: they are all unique, but this only makes them indistinguishable, interchangeable.

Even bleaker is The Criminal (1960), made in the UK by exiled American director Joseph Losey. Fresh out of prison, Johnny Bannion (Stanley Baker), a cocksure working-class lad made good in London’s gangland, organises a brilliant racetrack heist; but being in love, he makes a tiny error and is promptly betrayed. When he is sent back to prison, his bosses abduct his girlfriend Suzanne to force him to reveal the whereabouts of the loot. Instead, Bannion promises it all to a crook who can break him out. He rescues Suzanne, but is followed to the snow-dusted field where he buried the money. A shoot-out leaves him bleeding to death in this dismal, grey-white, rutted landscape. As the camera cranes up and away from his corpse, his killers randomly scratch at 23-The-Criminal-360x216the frozen dirt in the hope of finding the cash – and we hit the permafrost of existence: life is not just cold, it is as hard and featureless and unrelenting as the ground on which Bannion dies.

In Fargo (1996), snow simplifies things. The ground – even the air – loses its features. The world is reduced to small towns and corporate franchises linked only by roads, phones, TV broadcasts and flows of money in a whited-out desert of the real. It is as if Chuck Jones and Jean Baudrillard had collaborated on a Jim Thompson adaptation. The Coen brothers’ caricatures of Minnesotans and North Dakotans open up the gulf between American capitalism and the kind of small-town values (decency, neighbourliness) that Sarah Palin pretends to embody. In Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998), snow isolates a gently parodic small town so as to reveal the extent to which those values are a myth desperately at odds with capitalism. College-educated Hank (Bill Paxton), his unemployed brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jacob’s friend, Lou (Brent Briscoe), find a kidnapper’s plane, carrying over four million dollars in ransom, crashed in the snow. Family ties and class differences clash as Jacob is forced to choose between Hank and Lou. Hank’s wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), initially nice-as-apple-pie, becomes grimly determined to hang onto the cash. Violence erupts. People die. But that is nothing to her hatred for their just-getting-by lives.

jlgThe Lookout (2007) is likewise about the contradictions of the American dream. Former high school hockey star Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), brain-damaged in a car crash, has lost everything. Wintry Kansas-Missouri settings emphasise his barren existence. Bank robbers manipulate him into helping them, but the heist goes wrong. Chris must concoct and follow a complex plan to free his kidnapped best friend – the only problem is, Chris has severe difficulties with planning future actions and suffers form short-term memory dysfunction. Against a stark white snowscape, the world – bitterly, ironically – redeems Chris, almost against his will.

However, the bleakest American neo-neige is – unsurprisingly – not actually American. A Danish-Canadian-British-Brazilian co-production co-written by Hubert Selby Jr, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Fear X (2003) starts with Harry Caine (John Turturro) opening the curtains of his Wisconsin suburban tract home. Snow falls gently on the snow-covered street. A woman enters the house opposite. It is Harry’s wife. But Harry is dreaming. His wife is dead, killed in a double homicide outside the mall where he works as a security guard. The black and white surveillance footage from that day – over which Harry pores every night, desperate for any clue as to who killed her and why – fills the screen, grainy and blurred, a blue-grey world of silhouettes, shadows and snow.

Snow fills Harry’s dreams and memories. It creeps into his system, fills him from the core – twin wavefronts of despair and isolation.artikel_fear_x_2

Is it worth risking his life to get a step closer to the killer?

‘I’m not living anyway’, he replies.

[A version of this piece first appeared in Electric Sheep back when it was hard copy; but issue 8 (winter 2008), is now out of print.]